When the Ottawa Senators traded Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk, and a third round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Michael Carcon, I wasn’t exactly enthused by the deal. Zaitsev’s contract is onerous, it stretches on for four more years after this one, and I wasn’t totally convinced that he was much of an upgrade on the much-maligned Ceci. It seemed like the Sens were getting very little by the way of compensation for helping their arch-nemesis out of a precarious cap bind.
Whether the trade will go down as good or bad is a debate for another time, but what I was definitely wrong about was the value of Brown. Even with his recent scoring slump, Brown is still on pace to blow past his career high 36 points and the defensive plaudits he earned from the Toronto media have proven to be well-earned. He’s an absolute pest on the forecheck, he’s got more skill than he’s perhaps given credit for, and, most importantly for this story, he’s developed incredible chemistry with Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The two form the foundation of what could be a fantastic checking line for years to come. Their recent success alongside Nick Paul has also had the added benefit of reinvigorating the long-time Sens prospect who before this year seemed to be destined to never quite fulfill his potential. I’m not yet ready to declare Paul an essential part of the team’s future, but his prognosis is a lot more positive than it was even just three months ago. Much of that is owed to his time with Pageau and Brown.
When Brown came over from Toronto, he was primarily known as a checker, and his tenacity on the forecheck made him a favourite with the Leafs’ coaching staff. To my eyes, he’s a smart player, a strong skater, and he has a very good sense of where he needs to be on the ice; he anticipates plays very well. He is, to use a cliche, defensively responsible. Fortunately, the data backs up the cliches in this instance. Thanks to friend of the site Micah Blake McCurdy’s hockeyviz.com website, we can see Brown’s “Threat” measure for both his offensive and defensive contributions since he’s come into the NHL:
A cursory glance confirms our initial diagnosis: when Brown is on the ice, the other team generates a lot less offense.
What’s also worth noting, is that Brown’s teams also struggle to generate offense when he’s on the ice. The net balance is positive, but the conclusion is mostly that neither team is getting much of anything. Think back to Monday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets if you want a good idea of what a game played between two teams made up entirely of Connor Browns might look like.
Where things get very interesting, however, is what happens to the Sens’ offense once Brown has Pageau by his side:
The change in offensive production is the difference between scrapping by on low event hockey, and giving yourself a chance to win games by simply outplaying the other team. Their defensive threat rating when they share the ice is a stellar -17%, so it’s not like that end of the rink is being sacrificed, either.
In his time in Ottawa, Pageau’s often been cast as the defensive stopper but he’s also long had more offensive upside than he was perhaps given credit for. Besides his time spent with Mark Stone, Pageau certainly hasn’t had a parade of skilled forwards to help bolster his point totals. In that sense, his sudden offensive outburst with Brown is a bit surprising; as we just saw, Connor is not exactly a driver of offense but together they seem to be a bit more than the sum of their parts. Both are excellent at puck retrieval, and their real chemistry comes from how their speed and shiftiness in small spaces works in tandem. Take the first two goals from Pageau’s hat-trick against the New Jersey Devils as examples of what I mean:
On the first goal, Erik Brannstrom actually gives the puck away to the Devils but Brown steals it back before throwing it to the front of the net as quickly as he can. It’s inelegant, but by getting the puck to the net immediately the defense don’t have time to set their feet. Pageau is perfectly positioned to collect the carom off the net and tuck a shot short side on Mackenzie Blackwood. The sequence won’t make many highlight reels but it illustrates how Brown’s skillset can contribute to the offensive in the right context.
On Pageau’s second goal, Brown again makes a good play to retrieve a puck and immediately finds Paul in the slot who fires a shot off the post before Pageau buries the rebound. It’s a simple, unspectacular play but Brown goes from battling for net position to retrieving a dump-in and making a quick tape-to-tape pass without much resistance from the Devils because he is always moving his feet and he knows exactly what his plan of attack will be once he gets the puck.
Back to the idea that Brown and Pageau are helping each other out and that it’s not just Pageau propping up Brown’s offense: when Pageau is on the ice without Brown, his Threat measure drops to -3%. There’s a real synergy going on.
So they’ve been quite good in the here and now, but what does it mean for the future? Well, as you may have heard, Pageau is an unrestricted free-agent at season’s end. We can make educated guesses about the type of contract he’ll be seeking but the truth is that right now it doesn’t appear the two sides have had much by the way of talks and your guess is as good as mine as to whether he might be coming back. Brown will also be a free-agent at the end of the year, but he is slated to be an RFA. If the Sens want to keep him around, they should be able to afford his asking price. When he was first acquired, I was of the mind that flipping Brown at the deadline for a pick would ultimately make the most sense; why bother with a 25 year-old who can’t score? But his partnership with Pageau these first couple of months has me reconsidering my initial position a bit. Teams need twelve competent forwards to be competitive in today’s NHL, and to my mind you could do a lot worse than having the Pageau and Brown tandem anchor the third line for years to come.